It’s been nearly 30 years since the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival first staged plays in the grounds of Cambridge’s university colleges, inviting audiences to enjoy timeless stories of romance, drama and comedy, performed in period costume by a talented cast. Jenny Shelton looks over this year’s programme and talks to the Festival’s director, David Crilly.
“I find it quite odd to look back over the Festival, which I established in 1988,” says director David Crilly, speaking on his 56th birthday: “It means I’ve been running it for half of my life.
“The origins of the Festival were quite straightforward: whilst doing music research at Oxford I was asked to be the musical director for a friend’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. I had no theatre experience at all, but remember thinking ‘This is rubbish, I could do better myself!’.
“The Festival has evolved enormously since. In the early years we needed to push hard to be noticed. The University didn’t know who we were or whether they could trust us to occupy their gardens for two months of the year. We struggled to afford costume hire, but these days we have our own costume store and fully-equipped armoury.
“In 2009 The Independent on Sunday listed us in their Top 50 UK Arts Festivals. We have an international profile, too: I recently got a nasty shock when I saw my face staring back from an in-flight magazine on my way to Oman.”
Speaking about this year’s festival, he says:
“We have a very exciting programme of plays on offer this year, ranging from the intense brutality of Titus Andronicus through the poignant romance of Romeo and Juliet, up to the comic farce of The Merry Wives of Windsor. We like to tackle material that is new to us or rarely done in this country, so we’ve added Timon of Athens to the programme, which will give our regulars something different to look forward to. We never repeat a production, and every time we present favourites like A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s a new production with new actors and directors.”
A notable addition to the 2015 programme is Titus Andronicus: a notoriously bloody play with scenes of rape and mutilation that would present challenges for any company. Says Crilly: “I’ve been considering including Titus Andronicus for some years. It’s a difficult one, to say the least, and would be problematic to stage in a fully equipped venue, never mind in a beautiful sunlit garden. But the original productions didn’t rely on spectacular effects – the horror of the story has to be portrayed by strong actors who can communicate well with their audience, and I believe that’s what we do best.
“I can’t give away any secrets about how we’ll deal with the gruesome aspects of the production – the audience will have to wait and see. What I will say is that Robinson College was chosen because it is the only venue with a wooden stage – one that can be mopped clean again after every performance.”
How does he think Cambridge audiences will react to Titus?
“There’s bound to be an impression of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival as something very genteel and civilised. An ex-colleague of mine once dismissed it, saying: ‘Oh, Champagne on the lawns and all that?’. We’re very happy, of course, that people come along and picnic beforehand and it certainly has a unique atmosphere. But our audiences are fantastically diverse, ranging from regular theatregoers to those who hardly ever go to the theatre but enjoy the experience we offer. Regulars know to expect an event which is true to the intentions of the author, which includes a healthy dose of bawdy humour and gruesome violence.”
By contrast, Romeo and Juliet is a story everyone knows and loves. Will they be putting a new spin on it?
“The idea of ‘putting a spin’ on something is the exact opposite of what the Festival is about,” Crilly stresses. “I can’t stand productions which are set in needlessly weird locations and times for the sake of being ‘different’. If audiences want to see a five-man Macbeth in overalls set on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise then they’ve come to the wrong place. The performances are about the stories and characters created by Shakespeare. We trust Shakespeare and don’t think it needs improving.”
‘If audiences want to see a five-man Macbeth set on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise then they’ve come to the wrong place’
Staging eight plays outdoors, over two months, puts the company very much at the mercy of the elements. Still it’s all part of the fun and keeps everyone – actors and audience – on their toes. And only the most biblical of downpours will call an end to proceedings.
“The obvious unknown quantity of the Festival is the British summer, and we’ve experienced all extremes,” smiles Crilly. “Last year we had a pretty good summer, but a few years ago we endured a summer of tropical storms which left us in disarray. I remember going into St John’s the morning after a heavy downpour to find that the portaloos had floated away into the Fellows’ Garden. I turned the corner of the garden to see what state our stage was in, just in time to see a line of ducks swimming across it.”
While everyone is hoping for clear skies this summer, it could be said that their decision to stage Macbeth is asking for all kinds of trouble.
“We’re doing Macbeth this summer, which is supposed to be unlucky. People cite the supernatural content as the cause – that’s nonsense. The fact is that Macbeth can always attract an audience. In the past, if theatre companies were at risk of bankruptcy, they would stage it as a last- ditch attempt to raise revenue. The play then became associated with companies that were experiencing bad luck. I always insist on saying ‘Macbeth’ backstage before the opening night of any play (it really winds up the actors).”
He adds: “I should say, we’re doing Macbeth this year because it’s a great play. The Festival remains in rude health!”
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival runs 13 July-1 August, and 3-22 August when the programme changes. What to see at Cambridge Shakespeare Festival
Performances start at 7.30pm, every evening except Sunday. Tickets £16 (£12 concessions).